Religious Freedom

What Does a Case about Animal Sacrifice Tell Us about a Case Involving the Sale of Apples?

Quite a bit, actually.

The Tennes family owns and operates Country Mill Farms in rural Michigan, and they have been a regular fixture for years at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market. They grow 34 different apple varieties and sell those to their community at events like farmer’s markets.

In August 2016, in response to a Facebook question, Steve Tennes posted a comment that affirmed his convictions regarding marriage: It is the union of one man and one woman. These beliefs stem from his Catholic faith, and they inform what kinds of weddings he is willing to host at the farm, which is sometimes used as venue for wedding celebrations and other events.

His conviction about marriage, shared by millions of Americans of goodwill, gave city officials in East Lansing pause. It didn’t matter that the Tenneses treat all their customers with respect and sell their produce to any customer at the market. It didn’t matter that the farm was located 22 miles away from East Lansing, outside the city’s direct jurisdiction. The city determined that the Tenneses’ views were problematic, and officials asked them to stop attending the market.

When the Tenneses heard this, they temporarily stopped hosting weddings altogether at their farm. Surely that would sidestep the issue, right?

Wrong.

City officials brought Country Mill’s decision to the mayor, and they recommended that the city stop asking Country Mill to leave the market. But the mayor responded:

“I am not sure whether not hosting any wedding actually addresses the issue which is a public statement that their religion does not permit them to allow same sex couples to be married at their farm.”

For the mayor, the Tenneses’ mere expression of their religious views was sufficient to exclude them from the market. Within the next several months, the city changed its farmer’s market policies specifically to bar Country Mill from the 2017 Farmer’s Market.

The city thus singled out a particular religious viewpoint for unfavorable treatment, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional 25 years ago in the case Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah.

The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye is part of the Santeria religion, which practices regular animal sacrifice.For that religious group, animal slaughter is a form of devotion and worship.

In modern American society, religious animal sacrifice is, to put it mildly, not a very popular or mainstream practice. Only a few months after the church began renting land in Hialeah, Florida, and announced their intentions to practice their religion, the city prohibited animal sacrifice within its jurisdiction.

But the Supreme Court unanimously condemned such religious hostility. Justice Kennedy’s opinion notes that before the animal sacrifice prohibition was enacted, the city had passed a resolution stating that Hialeah’s residents had “great concern regarding the possibility of public ritualistic animal sacrifices.”

The court found that the law itself was not neutral because it was tailored to exclude a particular kind of religious exercise. The city had designed the law to shut down the church’s animal sacrifices.

The behavior of East Lansing city officials towards Country Mill shares noticeable similarities with the actions of Hialeah city officials toward the Santeria church in Lukumi. That explains why the court order requiring East Lansing to allow Country Mill to return to the farmer’s market cites the Lukumi case throughout.

In an important part of that order, the judge discusses the “connection between the [Tenneses’] expressions about their religious beliefs on Facebook and the City’s ultimate decision to deny Country Mill’s vendor application.” 

In the United States, whether you belong to the Catholic Church or a Santeria church, the free exercise of religion is for all citizens, which means any law that targets religion is unconstitutional.

Jared Dobbs

Communication Integrity Specialist

Jared Dobbs is the Communication Integrity Specialist at Alliance Defending Freedom.

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